As president and CEO of a division of the United Health Group and board member of Blue Diamond, alumnus Donald Yee strongly believes in paying it forward.
If there’s one word that might best describe former Ernst & Young partner Don Yee, it’s this: appreciative. A first-generation American, Yee still marvels that the son of Asian immigrants can wind up going to Stanford University and ultimately become president and CEO of a division of a Fortune 21 company. “It’s humbling,” says Yee, and it’s instilled in him a desire to give back and to strive to make a difference every day.
Growing up, Yee would often hear his mother and father speak about the United States in Chinese phrases that translated into “beautiful country” and “gold mountain,” euphemisms for opportunity and a better place. “My parents, who only had a sixth-grade Chinese education, were hugely appreciative of the opportunities in this country,” says Yee. And they made it clear to Yee and his siblings that they should be grateful, too, and to look for opportunities to give back whenever they could — “no matter how much or how little we had.”
Crediting teachers who “guided and inspired” him, Yee excelled in school and graduated from both the University of California-Berkeley and Stanford. While working his way through undergraduate school, Yee saw yet another instance of the “pay it forward” principle in action: He was working in finance at Chevron Corporation and had a tremendously helpful mentor who was the controller. “One day I asked him how I could ever repay him,” Yee recalls. The mentor replied that Yee couldn’t repay him, but rather, that Yee should do good for others when he had the chance.
Upon earning his MBA from Stanford in 1979, Yee joined Ernst & Young in San Francisco as a consultant and made partner at age 30. A short while later, he was named Office Managing Partner of the former Walnut Creek, California, office. Then, in 1993, Yee surprised friends and colleagues with the news that he was leaving public accounting — with no specific plans or job offer on the table. Although he “loved the firm and the clients and his colleagues,” Yee says, he simply decided he wanted to take some time off for his family and to consider new challenges. “I always remembered the Dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Business telling us to never be afraid to ‘re-pot,’ and I just felt it was time to try something new, especially with the terrific experience gained at Ernst & Young.”
For the next five years, Yee served as a business advisor and interim CEO for a number of companies and private equity groups. In 1998, one of his former clients, Vision Service Plan (VSP), asked Yee to join the company as its Chief Marketing and Corporate Development Officer. After helping to build VSP into the undisputed industry leader and running several of the business units, including serving as the founding CEO of Eyefinity (an Internet-based management services company), Yee became CEO of the VSP Family of Companies in 2005. Three years later, Yee took on his current position as president and CEO of OptumHealth Vision, a division of United Health Group. He also sits on the board of Blue Diamond, the world leader in the almond products industry.
Today, Yee continues to express his appreciation through giving back. Emulating his role models at Chevron and at Ernst & Young, particularly retired Ernst & Young partners Bob Hackman, Brian Belchers and Jim Farris (now deceased), whom Yee describes as his no-nonsense boss, friend and mentor, Yee finds great fulfillment in coaching and developing others. In addition to more traditional charitable giving, at a previous company Yee personally pledged to match whatever dollar amount the 120 employees there raised to assist victims of the tsunami that devastated much of Indonesia in 2004. And Yee and his wife, Gail, are currently involved in the American Cancer Society and a local charity, Christmas Promise, which on Christmas Eve has several dozen Santas delivering hundreds of bags of toys and essentials to needy Sacramento-area families.
As for his future plans, Yee says it’s simply to continue to strive to make a difference every day. “You don’t have to be a Nobel Prize winner,” he says. “If you can look in the mirror each night and say, ‘I made a difference,’ if you can do a little every day, then over a lifetime, that’s huge.”